The Olympics, and the Rise and Dangers of Private Security

Today, Nick Buckles, the CEO of the world’s biggest private security company, will be questioned by the UK House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which is attempting to explain how G4S managed to bungle the Olympic contract quite so badly. As 3500 soldiers prepare to step in where Group4Securicor failed, the UK government is busy assuring the public and the world’s athletes that security will not be compromised during the games. The ministers are also busy explaining why it took so long before G4S’s failure to recruit sufficient guards came to light, and why such a massive and complicated contract was awarded to just one company. What is not yet sufficiently debated, however, is the extent to which everyday security in the UK—and almost everywhere else—has come to rely on private security companies.

The G4S contract with the organizers of the London Olympics is unusual in its size and limited time-frame, but it is otherwise not unique. In almost every society across the globe, private security has become a pervasive part of everyday life. Engaged in the seemingly mundane protection of ‘life and assets’—the guarding of workplaces, shopping malls, and universities, the monitoring of alarms and CCTVs, the provision of risk assessment and management—private security has become so integrated into our daily activities of work and leisure as to go mostly unnoticed.

“The ‘private’ in private security is thus increasingly a misnomer, and in practice it is becoming difficult to draw a clear line between the public and the private.”

Despite their near-invisibility, private security personnel now frequently outnumber their public counterparts by a considerable margin. In the UK, private security officers outnumber public police by a ratio of almost two to one. In the U.S., it is almost three to one, while in Canada there are three private guards for every two police officers. In some developing countries, the number may be as high as ten to one. In India, for example, the private security sector employs about 5.5 million people, 1.3 million more than the country’s combined police and armed forces. In China, the number of guards is expected to grow from three to five million in the next few years.

With global expansion comes the global company, and its considerable power and influence. In the security sector, G4S is the undisputed giant, but it is far from alone. The world’s second largest security company, Securitas, operates in more than 50 countries and employs over 300,000 people. Another significant player is Prosegur, a Spanish company prominent in Europe and South America. In terms of reach, both are dwarfed by G4S: with over 657,000 employees, annual revenues of £6.7billion, and operations in over 125 countries, it is the third-largest private employer in the world and also the largest employer listed on the London Stock Exchange.

It is not only size, but also the type of security work that gives private companies influence in the security field. Traditionally seen as the preeminent public good, security is today increasingly outsourced. Indeed, not only is government outsourcing, downsizing, rationalization and cost-cutting one of the main explanations for the growth of private security, but for the companies the most lucrative contracts are frequently with governments and the public sector. G4S, for example, now runs six prisons, three secure training centres and two immigration centres in the UK, and its annual revenue from contracts with the UK public sector is a staggering £1 billion. It has also been in discussions with the West Midland Police to enter into a £1.5 billion joint business partnership that would see G4S take over a wide range of policing functions, including detention of suspects. In other countries too, private actors are involved in similar public-private security partnerships, frequently playing a key role in the provision of public security.

The ‘private’ in private security is thus increasingly a misnomer, and in practice it is becoming difficult to draw a clear line between the public and the private. In most settings, security is produced in a complex interaction and network of public and private actors, and it is clear that the two cannot exist in isolation from each other. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, and it is perfectly possible that private actors like G4S can contribute to increased public security. The key question, however, is one of accountability. Once the private has been incorporated into public security, how do we ensure their accountability to the public good and not to shareholders? If it is shown that G4S delayed hiring sufficient staff until the very last minute so as to avoid long-term contracts and reduce costs, did private interests trump public security?

The growth of private security was once referred to as a ‘silent revolution’, its influence spreading under the cloak of technical terminology of government downsizing, outsourcing and public-private partnerships concealing its potential impact on politics and security provision.  Well, it is not silent now, as the world’s media continues to uncover flaws in the Olympic security arrangements. For G4S and its CEO, the current situation is not only a major embarrassment, it is also costly. Its share prices dropped by nearly nine percent; the loss on the contract is about £50 million; Nick Buckles might soon be looking for another job; and perhaps most importantly, in the House of Commons the chairperson of the Home Affairs Committee has called for a pause in government contracts being awarded to G4S. If this is the beginning of a democratic debate over the role and accountability of private security in modern society, then something good might just come from this Olympic fiasco.

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